Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Mueller, Otto and Yvonne Schmidhauser. Otto Muelle: A Life Between Stalin and Hitler. Nanimo, British Columbia: Loonbook by Island Art Creations, 1999.
Germans from Russia (not available on interlibrary loan).
This book covers a frame of time and events similar to that in the memoirs of John Philipps, Elvera Reuer and Martha Liebelt (see below for citations), and is a welcome contribution to the story of the Germans from Russia in the twentieth century. Schmidhauser interviewed Otto Mueller and composed the book from tapes of the interview. Otto begins with a brief historical sketch that tells of the movement of the Germans into Russia following Catherine the Great's Manifesto of 1763, then details his experiences of life growing up in the well-developed German-Russian village of Ebenfeld in the early years of the twentieth century. He recalls the good and bad--childhood mischief, the design of buildings, holidays, spankings, a natural famine, grisly attacks by roving barbarians, weddings, visiting on Sundays, and trips to market and the shoemaker. He recalls the extremely hard physical work that motivated a bright and studious boy to think about going to theological school (which never happened).
In the late 1920s, revolution blew in like a dark storm. A new communist government he viewed abstractly as "the regime" upset their ordered lives, beginning with language rules. Then, as it consolidated its power, it moved to force the people onto collectivized farms. Because of their relative prosperity, the Muellers found themselves labeled kulaks and formally classified as state enemies. Otto's much older brother Heinrich, who was discharged from the army in 1927, foresaw what was coming, which enabled him to adjust more quickly than other members of the family. But Otto's father refused to believe things would get as bad as his son predicted and protested the changes. The worst began to come true when, as a result of the family's refusal to become members of the collective farm, they were evicted from their home and their possessions were removed. The men were sent off to the army or hard labor, and many families who remained, including the Muellers, huddled in a shack on the outskirts of the village. His sister Ida was sent to a hard-labor camp in Siberia for three years for trying to cut some sunflower seeds for the family to eat. For many reasons, they came for other families too. Friends and neighbors disappeared from the Muellers' lives, singing hymns whose words he still recalls. The Mueller family attempted to go to America in 1928 but was not successful. Finally, they did leave Ebenfeld of their own volition, thinking to take up land opened to settlement in Siberia. They went to Slovgorod and then eastward, living for a time in a town with many German refugees. Otto came to view life itself a gift. "It was [my mother] who taught me how to learn to accept one's fate, without hitting back or hating the aggressor. She taught us that love is a much stronger force than any hate. She used to say, "Just imagine that you are in the other person's place and act accordingly." In 1933, the family returned to the Ukraine and to Ebenfeld. His father also returned, a shadow of his old self. His father's dying words were, "You have to avenge my death." Otto long mulled the conflict between these words and his mother's admonitions.
This time, the Muellers endeavored to accept life on the communists' terms and settled into the collective farm structure. Otto went to school at Achdus, became a young communist, and parlayed his excellence as a student into a leadership position. Sensing a need, he went to school to learn cattle husbandry. But fear remained a central fact of their existence: "...the fear of banishment was evident in everybody"s behavior. "Fear was a constant companion." "The Jews were our saviors in those times because they were less afraid of the communists."
Their lives changed again and yet another time. When the German armies came into the area, Otto served as their interpreter, but he and his family still had a sense of living with one foot in jail. They tried to maintain hope and survive emotionally, physically, and spiritually even after they became aware that the Germans had killed the Jews who had been their friends. They remembered that "Hate always generates more hate." Eventually, Otto was taken into Germany along with thousands of other ethnic German refugees from the Ukraine. Next he endured the coming of the Russian troops and was caught up in the midst of the slaughter and suffering of active warfare. He was caught both physically and psychologically between the two armies even after the active fighting stopped.
In the effort to find a secure place to live in the last days of war and the early days of peace, Otto's remaining alive at all depended more than once on coincidence and luck. He worked and lived in many places, chamelion-like assuming whatever identity would help him survive the day. He suspects that he may have been the only person of an original group of 1,500 to survive in the west. He married in Germany despite not knowing what had happened to his first wife (whom he married in Russia) in the war.
Otto and his family migrated to Canada in 1951, where they were helped by Jews, Lutherans, and Mennonites. Their first years in Canada were difficult, beset with many temporary jobs and poor housing, their problems exacerbated by language difficulties. As time went by, memories of the old days troubled Otto, but he endured in his search for a better life. Fifteen years after their arrival in Canada, the family, which now consisted of two boys and two girls, moved from the Winnipeg area to Vancouver. Otto bought, fixed up, and sold houses, sang in choirs, and involved himself with the German Cultural Society. The children became educated, they moved into a beautiful home, and then, in 1971, they became Canadian citizens. "Finally I had arrived home," says Otto.
A negative in the book is Schmidhauser's erratic punctuation. This weakens it, but this is not a reason to avoid reading it. Otto Mueller is careful about dates throughout, using them in chapter headings and in the text. The dates will be very useful when books like this are used as anecdotal information by those who will write the formal histories. He tells a most absorbing story of heroism augmented by faith.
Also about this period:
Boardman, Edna. "Martha Liebelt: A Woman Who Wouldn't Return to Russia for a Mountain of Gold." Heritage Review, a publication of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society, 1008 E. Central Ave., Bismarck, ND 58501, March 1996.
Philipps, John. "The Tragedy of the Soviet Germans: A Story of Survival." Bismarck, ND, Richtman's Printing. 1983, reprinted 1991, 184 pages.
Reuer, Elvera Ziebart, written by Marjorie Knittel. "The Last Bridge: Her Own True Story." Midstates Printing, Aberdeen, South Dakota, 1984, 167 pages.
Reuer, Elvera Ziebart, written by Glaphry Duff. "A Distant Promise: A New Beginning." Quality Quick Print, Aberdeen, South Dakota, 1998, 235 pages.